Arena, was Alis' first reaction to the chamber beyond the doors. A great obsidian vault, with no furniture, no decoration, nothing but bare walls and floors of jet-black hue. The radiance from the magic lamp Odin wore was barely enough to let her know there were walls; the illusion of being plunged into a dark pool, of floating in a starless night sky was almost perfect.
It's almost like... The thought nagged at the back of her mind, memory teasing her but not finding a home, not yet.
Then it began to take shape. It emerged from the darkness, fading into existence, first as an insubstantial outline, then as overwhelming, terror-inspiring physical reality.
The thing was huge, towering at least twice Odin's height. Its lower body remained unseen, fading away into the dark, while its arms were grossly disproportionate, at least nine feet long, massively muscled, ending in clawed hands that could wrap fully around a Palman body. Though humanoid in shape, much of its body was covered in chitinous armor like an insect's exoskeleton. As for its face...
I know that face!
Memory locked into place for Alis. They'd spent one night at the Governor of Motavia's mansion, beneath which they now stood. During that night, she and her companions had experienced a shared dream in which they had been fighting a demonic entity. The saccubus, the dream-demon, had looked like this thing's face!
In the dream, the companions had all died horrible deaths. Had that been a premonition of this battle?
"The legend..." whispered the wizard Noah. "The One Who Comes With The Millennium."
Myau, the Musk Cat, snarled and hissed, the fur on its back standing up. Transformed after eating a Laerma nut, Myau was huge, six feet tall at the shoulder, but this monstrosity had a force to it that was more than simple physical size that left Myau reacting as if he was still a sixty-pound feline.
"What is this thing?" Odin, the warrior, asked incredulously.
"It has no name," Noah said. "It is evil made flesh, the corrupter and the destroyer. Espers call it Dark Force, for that is its nature."
"Lovely." Never one for drama, Odin raised his laser gun and shot the thing. The energy bolt crashed off its armored shoulder in a shower of sparks.
Dark Force just laughed.
"You would fight me?" he roared. "You were barely capable of destroying my pawn—a weak little fool who let his fear of death overcome his ambition. Do you think that the Governor assisted you in finding one another by accident? That one is mine, body and soul, nothing but a puppet. I wanted to make Lashiec act by giving him someone to fear, and if that would not suffice, then you would teach him a sorely needed lesson. When I rouse his spirit again to serve my needs, he will be more attentive to his duties."
The monstrosity cackled.
"Now your quest is complete. Lay down your weapons and submit if you wish to live, or throw away your useless lives if you prefer. It matters naught to me."
Alis wavered. She couldn't help it; she'd given everything she had to finish what her brother Nero had started, to destroy the tyrant Lassic. She'd abandoned being an ordinary girl to learn weaponcraft and magic. Armor, not pretty dresses, were the clothes she considered in the morning. And the killing...monsters, unquiet spirits, and Lassic's robots were bad enough, but the Dezorian terrorists, the barbaric native Motavians, the magically augmented warriors of the usurper...
Do you really want to kill an old man? That had been Lassic's question, and the answer had been a defiant "Yes!" It had been so easy—whatever it took to fight Lassic, she would do. Now, with the tyrant dead and gone, she had to ask herself if it had been worth the cost. When I die, will I be able to face Nero? Or will he just see as bloody a butcher as Lassic?
She didn't see the glowing pits that were the demon's sunken eyes glow brighter as her spirit flagged.
And after all that, to know I was doing this blasphemy's will...
The point of her black-bladed laconian sword dipped. The thorns in relief on the hilt were designed to give a surer grip, but they seemed to be piercing Alis' hand, a taste of her penance.
Then a miracle happened.
It was not a miracle of fire and light, not the kind preached about in church. This was a small miracle, a tiny miracle, though Myau would later remark that it had probably been more difficult to achieve than parting the seas or sending pillars of flame.
For the first time Alis could remember, Odin and Noah's minds came to the exact same conclusion at the same time. Odin's gun and Noah's crystal-tipped wand rose in unison.
"Eat this, worm-bait!"
Lasers and magical wind drilled into the demon, knocking it back infinitesimally.
Some would scoff at the idea that this was a miracle, but not Alis. For seeing the two men, so different in every way besides their dedication to her quest, act together as one made Alis laugh at the sight, and laugh again at how absurd her own reaction was. Here we are, faced with the ultimate evil, and I'm giggling at my friends' byplay?
And laughter was the best antidote to despair.
"If Lassic was your pawn," she snapped, her sword coming up again, "then whatever he did can be laid at your door! Our battle is not finished until you are destroyed!"
She charged, trying to get within range, hurling a ball of flame as she did. Now, though, the demon reacted. It had ignored Odin and Noah's attacks, but when Alis joined the fight it responded.
"You miserable, cretinous fools. Die, then!" Dark Force's hideous, fanged maw opened and comets of fire spewed out at the heroes. Alis barely got her laconian shield up in time to block two, but the force of the explosions numbed her arm even through her defenses.
She slashed at the demon, and was rewarded when the keen edge of her blade struck open chitin and midnight-blue flesh, drawing a gout of black ichor. Roaring in anger, it breathed a gout of pure darkness at her. Odin and Noah's continued sniping from long range threw off its aim somewhat, and again Alis was able to block with her shield, but she was knocked sprawling by the wave of black energy.
I need a better defense against its magic, she thought, even as Myau hurled himself at the monster. His claws raked uselessly against its armored torso, but a twist of his head sank one of the Silver Fang's blades deep into the beast's shoulder. Dark Force howled in pain, and its massive hands seized the cat's flanks just below his forelegs. Its talons pierced Myau's thick fur, drawing rivulets of blood as it pulled him away. Myau kicked and squirmed, but the demon held him fast.
Alis dropped her shield and pulled the four-foot-long crystal rod Damor had given her from its sling across her back. The soothsayer's crystal had been effective against Lassic's magic, and Dark Force was the source of that power, so it might also help now. She felt her skin tingle warmly, could see the pale blue aura that limned her body.
Dark Force roared again as Noah's wind spell tore at him once more. With titanic force, he hurled Myau against the obsidian wall, and Alis heard the snap of bone. Odin holstered his gun and pulled out his heavy, double-bitted laconian axe. The mystic weapon was possibly the most powerful fighting tool in all of Algo, though it might be difficult to bring it into play.
"Enough of your tricks, Esper!" the demon shouted at Noah as he rained thunder down upon it. Dark Force's foreclaws carved an intricate rune in the air, and the outlines of Noah's body...rippled, as if reality itself was being distorted. The shock was obviously too much for him to withstand; he slumped to the floor. Whether he was unconscious or dead, Alis couldn't say.
"Come at him from two sides, Alis," Odin urged her. It was good advice; the beast was too big to easily cope with multiple directions of attack. Its magic, though, was another story. Again the fire-comets spat, some turning on Alis and others towards Odin. Alis grinned as she parried with the crystal rod, easily deflecting the blasts with little effort. Odin grunted in pain as two fireballs detonated against his laconian armor, but he did not stop. His axe hacked open the chitinous armor on the monster's left arm while Alis' slender blade pierced its side.
Dark Force's scream was deafening. The weapons of laconia were hurting it! Alis ripped her blade free for another stroke, but never got the chance. The demon roared again, and the world went mad. Up and down lost their meaning and the universe dissolved into a swirl of stars in which Dark Force, Odin, and Alis herself were the only fixed points. Gouts of black energy spat from the creature's body, flying outwards in all directions.
Had Noah been conscious, he could have identified the demon's spell as one that opened another gateway to the place where it had come from, sucking the pure, raw black energy of that dimension through and spewing it into Algo's world. Alis didn't know that. All she could tell was that Odin was being repeatedly pummeled by the energy and even she was taking blows, though the crystal was stopping much of the attack.
When at last the gate closed and the obsidian arena was again visible, Odin was laying senseless and Alis had been staggered by the attack. When Dark Force saw her still on her feet, it realized that its magic was having little effect on her, so it simply drew back its titanic arm and backhanded her with the force of a charging mammoth. Alis flew one way; her black sword went the other. She hit the ground hard, knocking the breath out of her despite her armor, and the loud clash of shattering crystal told her that Damor's gift had struck the night-dark floor with more force than it could endure. A glance at it told Alis that about six inches had been snapped off, leaving a jagged end of crystalline teeth. With it, she realized, had gone its protective spells; the aura had faded.
Dark Force's laughter echoed throughout the room.
"So these are the Protectors of Algo. Hardly worth my time!"
Alis all but wept. Odin and Noah were down, perhaps even dead; Myau was conscious but could not even rise, let alone fight. As for her, she had no weapon, and her fire magic was hardly going to be effective where Noah's much more powerful spells had not. Still, she'd had her fill of despair. She used the crystal to push herself to her feet. If the demon was going to kill her, then let it try. She wasn't going to make it any easier. So long as she was alive, she would hope for victory.
At that moment, she heard Myau's soft purr, and a golden light seemed to flow through her veins, bringing strength and life. The Musk Cat's magic, to give power to its companions, surged brightly inside her.
It wouldn't last long. One chance, maybe. No more; she wouldn't live much longer than that.
Alis screamed, pouring all of her energy, all of her inner strength into one titanic effort, and hurled the crystal. Spearlike, the broken end punched through the demon's armor and buried itself between Dark Force's eyes, transfixing its head.
This time, there was no scream. Dark Force's body seemed to lock into place, and then its skin began to crack and flake away, melting into that black ichor, which in turn dissolved into a stinking vapor that rapidly faded from the air.
"It's gone," she said with relief. She could feel its absence, like a miasma lifted from her soul. Alis looked up at the vault's domed ceiling, seeing not a flat surface of volcanic rock but the endless expanse of the night sky.
"It's over, Nero. This time, your soul really can be at peace."
They were all right, of course. It wouldn't have been a happy ending if Odin or Noah had died. Even the Governor seemed to have shaken off the effects of being possessed body and soul by Dark Force. Well enough, at least, to drop the bombshell that Alis was none other than Princess Alisa Landale, heiress to the throne Lassic had claimed. And since the tyrant was dead and the missing princess found all at the same time, there was only one thing left to do.
It was lucky that the Governor's mansion was as large at it was, because it was one heck of a big party. Since she was the center of attention, Alis endured the first two hours of it with forbearance, but eventually the pressure of being at the eye of the storm grew too much for the heroine—she was, after all, still only fifteen—and eventually she wandered out onto one of the many balconies for some fresh air. Motavia was a desert planet, and while the days were scorching, the night breeze was crisp and cool.
"Finding your newfound fame difficult, my princess?"
Alis spun, surprised by the soft voice. It was Noah, who always startled her by the way he could move as quietly as...well, as quietly as Myau.
"Please, Noah, I know you're just kidding, but...well, I just don't need to hear that from you."
The Esper raised one delicate blue eyebrow.
"If it bothers you so much, why did you decide that you would claim the throne?"
"Someone has to."
Noah chuckled softly.
"At the risk of sounding like Odin, I have to say that I almost followed that."
Alis smiled back.
"Lassic all but ruined Palma. The army and police became instruments of fear, he cut off trade, he herded the people into cities, and he reduced the technology level in the outlying areas to a pre-industrial stage. His death leaves a huge power vacuum and a lot of needy people. I'm the daughter of King Marek Landale, the legitimate heir, and the one who killed Lassic. If I say 'follow me and do what I tell you,' the people will. Otherwise, there will be regional conflicts, squabbling over limited resources, probably even war. If I don't take the crown as Queen Alisa III, Lassic's evil will go on and on."
"I believe I understand."
"Good, because one speech is all you get to hear!"
He leaned on the railing next to her. They looked out into the city of Paseo, watching the multicolored lights and hearing the music. The party wasn't just at the Governor's mansion; it was a carnival that consumed the whole town, probably the whole system.
"Noah?" Alis said after a while.
"Why did it work? Damor's crystal, I mean. Why did it kill Dark Force? It broke when it hit the floor, but it pierced Dark Force's armor, which not even Odin's laser could scratch."
"Do you want the truth or my opinion?"
"I don't know."
"Silly! Let's hear your opinion, then."
He smiled enigmatically at her.
The soon-to-be-queen wondered if it would be acceptable to pitch the Esper off the balcony.
"Noah, just how much neimila have you had?" she asked bluntly.
"I apologize," he said, a serious look dropping into place again. "I did mean what I said, though. Damor was one of the most skilled Espers of the previous generation, and he spent a dozen years or more turning that crystal into something that would deflect Lashiec's new magic."
"Lashiec? Dark Force called him that, too."
"It's his apprentice-name. No doubt Dark Force gave it to him when he entered its service, just like Master Tajim called me Noah when I began studying under him."
"I see; he never called himself that in public because he was the king and no one would understand why he changed it."
"Since Lassic's magic came from Dark Force, the crystal was, in essence, made to fight it. You figured that out yourself or you'd never have tried it in the fight. When the crystal broke, the main spells were shattered, but you can't put that much power into something without changing it on a more fundamental level. Then you went and put even more power into it."
"I did?" Alis asked, bewildered.
"Yes. You are an Esper, after all."
"True, but I didn't cast any spells."
"You didn't consciously cast any spells."
Alis turned to her friend curiously.
"Noah, what do you mean?"
"If you don't mind me being a bit circuitous, it has to do with your swordsmanship. You're a master swordswoman, Alis, more effective in combat than even Odin, but the only training you've ever had is what we've given you during the quest. No one is that good based on natural instincts alone, especially not compared to someone like Odin, who is one of the best fighters I've ever known. There is, however, another explanation."
The wizard laced his slender fingers together.
"You've probably heard in stories how skilled warriors can perform incredible feats by drawing upon their 'inner strength' or something similar. What they are really doing is drawing upon the latent magic in their environment. What you do is much like that, only you use your own power as an Esper, and do it all the time without realizing it."
Alis gave him an odd look.
"I'm doing magic in battle?"
"Your subconscious mind is, yes. The two emotions most associated with you, Alis, are hope and determination. You don't back down, and you don't give up in the face of anything. That emotion is very likely made even stronger by your age, as adolescence is a time of great passion and dedication that we generally lose as we get older. I believe that when you enter battle, your subconscious broadcasts that hope as a psychic aura. Your enemies feel that aura and become scared, less confident, more hesitant, while we fighting alongside you gain strength and courage from it."
"Noah, are you sure about this?"
"Quite sure. You are a telemental, though only an unconscious one. I possess telemental ability myself, though I haven't yet developed it, so I'm sensitive to the effects of telementalism around me. It didn't take long to realize what was occurring."
Alis shook her head in amazement. She'd never realized any of this.
"When you threw the crystal, you also poured all of your magic into it. I could feel the traces when I picked it up. There were even bits of Myau's spell dragged in."
"But why did that make the crystal strong enough to breach Dark Force's armor? Even I know that a magic weapon is limited by what you make it from."
"Well, there are spells that can strengthen something's physical structure, but there were none of those on the crystal. If you'd hit Lashiec with it, it would have broken, but Dark Force doesn't have a body, not truly."
He smiled at her shell-shocked expression.
"It doesn't eat, it doesn't sleep, it doesn't mate, there's nothing about it that ties it to a body. It is pure magic and will in its natural state. It only incarnates itself in order to use that power. Once incarnated, it can be killed." He smiled thinly at her once more. "At least, that is my theory."
"I get it!" Alis said. "Since it builds its body from magic, and since the crystal was designed to dispel that magic, the crystal can cut through its flesh!"
"Exactly. I think," he amended.
Noah rubbed his fingertip idly along the balustrade.
"Alis, could I keep Damor's crystal?"
"Yes, I guess so. Why?"
"Your use of it gave me an idea. The combination of bits and pieces of spells within it could never have been duplicated purposefully, and with the addition of strengthening spells so that it wouldn't break every time it hit something hard, it would make a very interesting weapon. I've never seen anything that adapts to magic quite like it."
From out in the desert, there came a high-pitched whine, and a streak of light shot up in the air and detonated in a shower of green sparks. Another followed in brilliant blue, then pink, and then the fireworks had begun in earnest. Alis looked up, rapt at their beauty, and all at once she realized that they were for her—the whole celebration was because the people were joyous about what she'd done.
For once, she didn't think of the responsibility, she didn't think about what Lassic had done, she didn't think about the work that remained in the future, she didn't even think about Nero. For the first time, she looked up at the exultant bursts of light and realized that she, Alis Landale, had achieved something that an entire city, maybe even an entire race, felt was a cause for celebration.
And you know what? It's about time I celebrated it, too!
She grabbed the Esper's hand, cutting short whatever he was saying about turning Damor's crystal into a magic sword.
"Come on, Noah! This is supposed to be a party, so let's dance!"
And with that, Alis dragged the wizard back into the lights and music of the ballroom.